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The Penang Secession Movement, 1948–1951


The Federation of Malaya, formed on 1 February 1948, may be considered a major achievement in state-building in the Third World. Despite great stresses and strains, it was to survive intact until 1963 when it became the dominant part of a larger political entity. Its integrity as a politically unified system was threatened in those fifteen years by numerous secession attempts emanating from Johore (in the period 1955–1956), from Kelantan (in 1955) and from Penang (in the period 1948–1951 and 1953–1957). This article will deal with the most important of these, the Penang secession movement of 1948 to 1951.

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1 Petition to the Right Honourable Arthur Creech Jones, dated 12 October 1949, p. 1, hereinafter referred to as Petition.

2 The Straits Chinese were a particular social, cultural and political group on the periphery of the Chinese ethnic group. Many were able to trace their residence in Malaya back many generations and were angered at being confused with other Chinese, at being referred to as “Chinaman”, often being contemptuous and sometimes fearful of them. A Straits-Chinese wrote, for example: “The time has come for the Straits Chinese to assert themselves. If they don't they will be swamped by China-born Chinese.” Straits Times, 11 December 1948. Most, if not all, regarded Malaya as their home, and the most Malayised of them spoke “Baba Malay” preferring Malay to Chinese food. Some, like Tan Cheng Lock, could no longer speak Chinese. Economically, they tended to be either in commerce, the professions, or in the civil service for which they were specially suited because of their English education. Politically, they owed no loyalty to China and looked to Britain for their ideals. They were pro-British, being particularly proud of their status as British subjects, a nationality gained through birth in the Straits Settlements. For more on the Straits Chinese, see Poh-seng PngThe Straits Chinese in Singapore: A Case of Local Identity and Socio-Cultural Accommodation” in Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol. X, No. 1 (1969), 115141.

3 Despite repeated British assurances to the contrary, many also believed that by their automatic acquisition of Federal citizenship they would become subjects of the Sultans.

4 Straits Echo, editorial, 30 November 1946. The Echo is a good reflector of elite Straits-born opinion in the period under consideration.

5 “Federal Misgivings in the Straits-born” in Straits Times, 26 02 1948. Italics mine.

6 Malaya Tribune, 10 December 1948. Belief in the “supremacy of British Government” was openly expressed. The secessionists were later to proudly assert that Penang “still accepts British culture and political influence as part of its pattern in life.” Petition, p. 6 and p. 11.

7 This is legally incorrect. See Clause 154 of the Federal Agreement.

8 Straits Times, 26 February 1948.

9 The MNP and elements in UMNO, which were termed “extremist”, had challenged the concept of dual citizenship. In the period immediately leading up to independence, the Malays did in fact mount a very strong campaign against the dual citizenship of the Straits-born.

10 Straits Times, editorial, 14 April 1948.

12 Times of Malaya, 11 February 1947.

13 Annual Report on the Malayan Union 1947 (Kuala Lumpur, 1948), p. 29.

14 Debate in House of Commons on the Committee Stage of the Straits Settlements Repeal Bill. Simandjuntak B. Malayan Federalism 1945–1963 (Kuala Lumpur, O.U.P, 1969) p. 256.

15 Penang traders also criticised the system whereby duty on goods was paid on the price which the mainland customer paid and not on the Penang landed price. This meant that it sometimes was cheaper for the mainland wholesaler to import through Port Swettenham.

16 Malaya Tribune (Penang), 20 June 1947.

17 Straits Echo, 30 November, 1946.

19 Times of Malaya, 14 February 1947.

20 In any case, to what extent can an association which had a 1948 membership of 488 (on paper) be said to represent the Penang public? Straits Times, 6 December 1948. Its annual report made in April 1948 declared a membership of 217 life members and 160 ordinary members. Straits Echo, 14 April 1948.

21 Straits Echo, 30 December 1946. At th e root of the demands for greater attention was Penang's view of her own importance. She took pride in her motto: “Penang leads”.

22 Straits Echo, 8 December 1948.

23 Indeed, up to today, the provision for “the special position of the Malays” exists in the constitutions of all the States of Malaya with the exception of those of Penang and Malacca. Groves Harry, The Constitution of Malaysia (Malaysia Publications, Singapore, 1964) p. 204.

24 Malaya Tribune (Penang), 3 February 1948.

25 Trade with the mainland was disrupted. Straits Echo, 29 November 1948.

26 Penang imports for 1947, for example, were worth 188 million Malayan dollars and this compared very favourably with 122 million Malayan dollars, the average figure for the three years 1937–39. The Straits Times, editorial 14 April 1948.

27 Straits Times, 2 February 1948.

28 Major A.S. Roman, former Assistant Commissioner for Labour said on his departure from Malaya: “The peoples of this country should acknowledge the sons of the soil as the lawful owners of the land and accede to them the legitimate right of rule.” Straits Times, 24 January 1949. Such views were becoming more public and typical after the communist insurrection. They were repugnant to the Straits Chinese.

29 The Chamber had supported the Federation proposals in principle in its 1947 memorandum to the Cheeseman Committee.

30 In the letter, Macka y also suggested that Malacca and Province Wellesley should be incorporated in the Federation and that Penang should be a member when Singapore became one. Times of Malaya, 14 February 1947.

31 Straits Echo, 22 November 1948.

32 Straits Echo, 23 November 1948.

33 Straits Echo, 27 November 1948.

34 Straits Echo, 11 December 1948.

35 Straits Times, 10 December 1948.

36 Malaya Tribune (Singapore), 16 September 1948.

37 A prominent Singapore Straits Chinese of the Progressive Party, C.C. Tan, wrote, “any benefit conferred on on e race is likely to be magnified ten-fold and construed as discrimination by the other races…” “A Solution for the Settlements”, Straits Times, 16 December 1948.

38 Petition, p. 8.

39 Malaya Tribune, 10 December 1948.

40 Kok Sin Hock of the Penang S.C.B.A. replied in anger: “I can claim to be more” anak Pulau Pinang “(a son of Penang) than 99% of the Malays living here today.” Straits Echo, 14 December, 1948.

41 Straits Echo, 13 December 1948.

42 Malaya Tribune (Kuala Lumpur), 7 December 1948.

43 Interview with Koh Sin Hock, 28 December 1969.

44 The level of proponents' commitment to policy can be roughly gauged by examining (1) their statements, (2) their willingness to bear the costs of pursuing the policy in terms of time, attention, energy, expenditure, unpopularity, prestige, and the sacrifice of values in general, (3) their willingness to use certain instruments of policy e.g. force, and to resort to forceful imposition on unwilling people, and (4) their persistence despite obstacles and setbacks.

45 An extreme example was the time it took (over eight months) to draft and submit a petition to the Colonial Secretary.

46 Malaya Tribune (Kuala Lumpur), editorial, 7 December 1948.

47 Straits Echo, editorial, 15 December 1948.

48 Straits Times, 8 December, 1948.

49 Whitehall kept a watching brief but seems to have left matters largely in the hands of MacDonald (the Commissioner-General) and Gurney (the High Commissioner).

50 Straits Echo, 3 February 1949. On the anniversary of the inauguration, Gurney stated that “The record of the Federation in its first year has, I think, more than fulfilled the hopes and justified the faith of those who set their hands to the agreement.” Straits Echo, 2 February 1949.

51 In addition, the mainland non-Malay opponents (including Tan Cheng Lock) opposed the Movement because it would “shut the door” to Singapore's future entry. Tan was at that time attempting to build the MCA and believed that Chinese unity and power would be weakened by the secession of a unit in which the Chinese were so powerful. It would also substantially weaken the Straits Chinese component and leadership of a Chinese political movement.

52 A fifteen-man Penang and Province Wellesley Secession Committee was also set up. The members of the Committee were: D. A. Mackay (Chairman of the Penang Chamber of Commerce), N. Ponnudurai (President of the Penang Clerical and Administrative Staff Union), J.P. Souter (President of the Settlement of Penang Association), C.P. Liston, Ng Sui Cam (Settlement Councillor representing the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce), Dr. Lee Tiang Keng (Federal Executive Councillor), Lim Khye Seng (lawyer and Federal Councillor), (Mrs) B.H. Oon (Federal Councillor), Chee Swee Ee (rural representative Settlement Councillor), N.T. Assomull (President of the Indian Chamber of Commerce), M.P. Mathew, G. Shelly (Province representative in the Settlement Council), A.C. Reutens (of the Penang Eurasian Association), A.M. Abu Bakar (of the Penang Muslim Chamber of Commerce, Settlement Councillor), and H. Tyebkhan (of the Penang Muslim Chamber of Commerce). By February, as a result of the castigation of the Penang Muslim Chamber of Commerce, Abu Bakar and Tyebkhan (who had died) were no longer members. They were replaced by Lim Huck Aik and Koh Sin Hock of the Penang SCBA.

53 Straits Times, 11 December 1948.

54 This was wise for the secessionists probably would have lost if a plebescite had been held. The Malays were solidly opposed. Th e non-Malays were largely apathetic and divided amon g themselves.

55 It was now called the Communal Liaison Committee and was later to be re-christened the Communities Liaison Committee.

56 Straits Times, 12 February 1949.

57 Up to the very last moment the secessionists unrealistically believed that the unofficials might not be forced to toe K.L. policy.

58 Straits Echo, 11 February 1949.

59 Straits Echo, 15 March 1949.

60 Utusan Melayu, 12 December 1948.

61 At a massive (by Penang standards) and rousing rally attended by 2,000 Malays, held in Penang on 8 January, Dato Onn had declared: “If the Malays do not agree to it, there can be no secession.” Straits Echo, 9 January 1949.

62 The criticisms concerning equality were to some extent mitigated by the apparent increase n i the number of promotions in the civil service among the Straits-born.

63 Straits Times, January 1949.

64 The hopes for a cure rested very heavily on the Committee. For more on race relations in the period and on the activities undertaken to improve it, see Sopiee (ed) The Communities Liaison Committee and Post-War Communal Relations in Malaya (xeroxed, Kuala Lumpur, 1970).

65 Straits Echo, 3 May 1949.

66 Straits Echo, 3 May 1949. Souter became chairman of the Secession Committee when Mackay went on leave to South Africa in mid-1949.

67 There are three basic methods by which policy change may be brought about. Since actors will adopt a policy if it possesses, among the considered policy alternatives, the greatest subjective value, they will abandon that policy, if they can be persuaded into believing that t i is no longer the option which has greatest subjective value. Secondly, they may be educated into restructuring their hierarchy of values so that the policy no longer has greatest subjective value. The holding of the inaugural meeting of the Sino-Malay Goodwill Committee in Penang dramatised the point that racial harmony was of the utmost importance and helped to enhance its value. Thirdly, the power wielder can cause change by directly affecting the value of a policy through manipulating values (by promising or bestowing values if policy is abandoned and threatening or depriving values if it is not).

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Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-4634
  • EISSN: 1474-0680
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